Creating Anticipation: The Theme Song

July 7, 2013 § 1 Comment

I was re-viewing the last few episodes of HBO’s “The Newsroom” in preparation for the commencement of Season 2, set for next Sunday.  Eager to get to Episode 9 (The Blackout, Part 2: Mock Debate), I was about to fast-forward through the opening credits to get right to it.  But then for some reason, I didn’t.  By then, the opening music had started.  I stopped and I listened.  And, I realized that I love the music, “The Newsroom” music.  It put me in the place, the space, anticipating what was to come.

Theme music, also known as title music.  It’s the opening act.  Literally and figuratively.  It opens up the stage on which the drama (or comedy) is about to take place.  It sets the tone and draws you in.  According to Wikipedia:

Theme music is a piece that is often written specifically for a radio program, television program, video game or movie, and usually played during the intro, during title sequence and/or ending credits. If it is accompanied by lyrics, most often associated with the show, it is a theme song

The purpose of the music is to establish a mood for the show and to provide an audible cue that a particular show is beginning, which was especially useful in the early days of radio.”

Think of the slightly clipped, orderly piano notes and the longing of the violin, layered on the urgency of bass strings at the start of “Downton Abbey.”  Or the “Game of Thrones” otherworldly, ominous orchestral title music written by composer Ramin Djawadi.  Or the almost non-music at the opening of an episode of  Showtime’s “Homeland,” replaced instead by outtakes of conversations layered with trumpet snippets by jazz great Louis Armstrong, that gives the impression of confusion and chaos, and of eavesdropping on a conversation you’re not meant to hear.

Of course there are visuals married to the music, creating the opening sequence.  We get just a glimpse of the settings and accoutrements of the Edwardian era of “Downton Abbey.”  For “GoT,” the opening sequence “depicts a three-dimensional map of the series’s fictional world, projected onto the inside of a sphere, which is centrally lit by a small sun surrounded by an astrolabe.  As the camera swoops across the map and focuses on the locations in which the episode’s events take place, complicated clockwork mechanisms let buildings and other structures emerge from the map and unfold.  While the opening of “Homeland,” is comprised of “a montage of jump cuts, grainy footage and superimpositions.”  All three set the stage for what’s to come.

But it’s the music that makes the difference.  We begin to understand why in the New York Times piece, “Why Music Makes Our Brains Sing,” written by Robert J. Zatorre, a professor of neuroscience at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital at McGill University and Valorie N. Salimpoor, a postdoctoral neuroscientist at the Baycrest Health Sciences’ Rotman Research Institute in Toronto:

More than a decade ago, our research team used brain imaging to show that music that people described as highly emotional engaged the reward system deep in their brains — activating subcortical nuclei known to be important in reward, motivation and emotion.  Subsequently we found that listening to what might be called “peak emotional moments” in music — that moment when you feel a “chill” of pleasure to a musical passage — causes the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, an essential signaling molecule in the brain.

When pleasurable music is heard, dopamine is released in the striatum … But what may be most interesting here is when this neurotransmitter is released: not only when the music rises to a peak emotional moment, but also several seconds before, during what we might call the anticipation phase.

They go on to describe the role of the auditory cortex, the regions of the brain where they believe that music is represented:

These cortical circuits allow us to make predictions about coming events on the basis of past events. They are thought to accumulate musical information over our lifetime, creating templates of the statistical regularities that are present in the music of our culture and enabling us to understand the music we hear in relation to our stored mental representations of the music we’ve heard.

So each act of listening to music may be thought of as both recapitulating the past and predicting the future. When we listen to music, these brain networks actively create expectations based on our stored knowledge.

Whether it’s a song you’ve heard and want to download to your music library or one that’s tied to a television program, the effect is the same – anticipation. Listen to the first few notes and you’re hooked.

Of course, Apple knows this; their new ads leverage the emotional pull that music can provide.  And no, not everyone has Apple’s advertising budget.  But it can be done on more meager marketing spends; it’s possible to leverage the power of sound to communicate and connect with our respective audiences. There’s really no excuse, given that technology has made it easier and more affordable than ever to do so.  Some ideas:

  • Use a site like Bandcamp to discover lesser-known artists and purchase music.  Connect with the musicians to secure the rights for commercial use.
  • Everyone has an “About” video.  Make sure that yours includes your “theme.”
  • Use Video on Instagram to create social media friendly videos with the song (or songs) that represent your brand.
  • Provide the option for visitors to your site to “turn on” music.
  • Have a music page on your site or blog – include songs and videos that say “you” (aka align with your brand).

Whatever you do, don’t miss this opportunity.  Take a cue from the best in television.  Create anticipation.  Pick a theme song.


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